Even with one’s eyes closed, figuring out what season it is right now is a sure thing.
The nose knows. It smells like fall.
Breathing in fresh, exhilarating air is one of the reasons I step out onto the back porch each morning before sunrise, greeting the guineas already poking around the yard and scanning the meadow for out-of-place bovines. Morning air smells clean and fragrant and is especially bracing on cool, moist November mornings.
The fragrance is a subtle blend of so many things, most of them almost too elusive to pinpoint. It’s a seasonal combination of earthy and woodsy, of moist soil and composting leaves, of corn drying in the bins up past the barns and harvested stalks and stems still lingering in the fields. Maybe there’s a little touch of the rosebush still lingering in late blooming at the springhouse and an occasional whiff of “barnyard” sprinkled throughout.
It’s the scent of the countryside preparing for winter’s dormancy.
Another favorite fall fragrance wafts past the back porch, chased by a light breeze from the east: wood smoke. With our outdoor wood furnace cranked up and giving off its welcome indoor comfort (although we didn’t need much heat during the recent warm stretch), the acrid odor of wood smoke mingles with and adds its slight pungency to the blended perfume of fall.
We never burn leaves, instead recycling their valuable organic matter into the gardens and fields. But the occasional scent of illicitly burning leaves is a distinctly seasonal scent, despite knowing that burning is not the desirable ending for this gift of nature.
Cinnamon, one of our most commonly used baking spices, almost screams “fall,” even though most of us use it regularly year-round. But, with the baking season of the fall and winter holidays, cinnamon’s gently spicy fragrance turns up with greater frequency.
Combined with apples, the most iconic fruit of fall, cinnamon aromas perfume our kitchens with the mouthwatering promises of pies, cakes, crisps, cobblers and sauces. Combine a couple of cinnamon sticks with some tangy apple cider, mull it a bit over gentle heat and you might get a stampede to the kitchen.
And after the apples, comes yet another of the season’s most welcome and homey food fragrances to waft out of our kitchen: pumpkin. We enjoy pumpkin year-round, thanks to a usually plentiful harvest of neck pumpkins grown at various spots around the farm.
One recent morning, the aroma of pumpkin filled the house, after I discovered a formerly unseen neck pumpkin whose mother vine had sneaked out of the garden and off into the adjoining corn field. When the combine rolled through the field next to the garden, shelling out cobs, it also rolled right over the hidden neck pumpkin, severing — so to speak — its head.
By the time I found the decapitated pumpkin, the “head,” the round part containing the seeds, was already decomposing and holding a bit of water from recent rains. But the long, solid neck, which contains most of the pumpkin flesh for cooking, was barely damaged.
A few days later, after carting it back to the house, I lopped off the drying, broken end, cut the slightly-scuffed pumpkin neck into a few large chunks, and laid them, shell-side, down in a baking pan filled with a bit of water and covered with aluminum foil. After the flesh had baked to mushy tenderness, I scooped it out with a big spoon, and refrigerated it for later use in a pumpkin-strudel muffin recipe I wanted to try out.
While we can only savor nature’s outdoor aromas of fall for a brief time, how blessed we are to have apples, pumpkin, cinnamon and such a host of other favorite, somewhat-seasonal scents available year-round.
But never do we appreciate more in November what may be everyone’s favorite fall aroma: roasted turkey.
A reminder that I’d better jot “big bird” on the grocery list.